Thursday, July 5, 2012

Pocari Sweat, Peaches, and Bidets in Narita Japan

Gravestones in Narita, Japan

We never intended to go to Japan this year, it was the serendipitous outcome of inflating gas prices and inconvenient airport transfers.
We had our eyes set on a very specific flight that would have a layover in Hong Kong. I watched that flight every single day, and mapped out all the equivalent flights to find the precise point where it would drop. I would buy my ticket on a tuesday, 3 months prior to the departure date. That was the sweet spot.

But as gas prices rose, so did the ticket price. That ticket never hit the sweet spot, and we found ourselves in a very uncomfortable situation. All of the flights were a good 400 dollars more than we expected to pay. That was when we found what looked like the most inconvenient flight imaginable... one labeled with a whopping 40 hour travel time... and an airport transfer to an airport almost 2 hours away from the first one. Not only would it be like this on the way TO Thailand, it would be the same on the way back. It sounded like an atrocious waste of our time and a horrible idea for the severely jet lagged. We passed over this flight more than a few times over the course of a week before realizing we were in desperation. This flight would save us about 600 dollars each. Nothing else even came close. We booked it.

As we began planning the logistics of transferring airports, which is insanely intimidating when you look at the knotted up yarn images that are the Japanese railway maps, we started to realize we would have a perfect amount of time to explore a small town near one of the airports. Ryan read on a blog somewhere that Narita has one of the best sushi spots in Japan. 

Ryan loves sushi. I mean, he really loves sushi. One of his life goals is to walk into a small  sushi spot, in Japan, and have the sushi chef lovingly carve up the best fish of the day for him. After Ry read to me the glowing review of this "little sushi shop" that has no signage in English, he paused and gave me the same look that I once saw in an old home video of him on Chanukah morning after receiving an abundance of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle action figures. With eyes welling up and a tear on its way (really), Ryan said to me - in a high pitch whisper somehow befitting a grown man channeling his inner 9 year old- "Do you know what this means???" And somewhere, in a land far far away, a unicorn was born and a fairy given its wings.

To give you an idea of how ludicrously perfect our trip went, we landed into the Land of the Rising Sun as the sun was, literally, rising. To give you an idea of how stereotypically adorable Japan can be, the first  thing I saw when we landed in Haneda was a Pokemon Plane... and then a Hello Kitty plane. Clearly, they are trying very hard to break the stereotype.


I couldn't make this up.

We slept through all but an hour or so of the 11 hour flight, so we were feeling extremely well rested and ready to galavant through the land of cuteness and raw fish. 

Now let's be real here. I began and ended my asian journey on a Japanese toilet, so it deserves a little type time. Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you... the most high tech toilet that Japanese innovation could create. This is the norm. They take their toilets seriously. There was even a map on the outside of the bathroom that detailed which toilets had which options available. How many options could there be you might ask? Well, let me show you.

  "The Angle of Cleansing water coming in contact with the buttocks is adjustable"

I can't tell you what the difference is between SPRAY and BIDET. I certainly tried both out (You know, for science). I also don't really see a big difference in the positioning of the bidet towards the "FRONT" or "REAR". Both seemed rather inefficient, but I give them an A for effort. Maybe they aren't engineered to maneuver an American Derrière.

Honestly, this was one of the most primitive of the high tech toilets I found compared to the Narita Airport bathroom. The one in the Narita Airport was trying it's hardest to relieve you of any embarrassing moments you might have in the bathroom stall.

"Powerful Deodorizer" and "Warm Seat" options. 

I don't know about you, but a "warm seat" is alarmingly unwelcome when I sit on a toilet. 

"Flushing Sound: Press to play back flushing sound to muffle toilet sound"

Of course, I had to try every single option. While great in theory, the flushing sound is probably the least likely thing to distract others from your bathroom activities. Imagine the worst, midi quality, flushing sound from any cartoon you can imagine on a never ending loop. The sound was so bad. I kept waiting for it to end, painfully aware of how loud and obnoxious and inauthentic it sounded. If I was a wee bit smarter I would have realized I have to press "STOP" to end any of the features. It will gladly bidet your behind into a raw, raiseny rump. I learned this while simultaneously learning you can have all the features going at once (a consequence of attempting to turn off one feature by starting another.)

While it might seem that I spent our entire 12 hour layover in the bathroom, we did manage to zoom through customs in matter of minutes and somehow managed to buy a train ticket to get us through Tokyo and into Narita City. I think it says a lot about the efficiency and "sense" of the Japanese train system when I can honestly say I had a harder time navigating the subways of Washington DC than those of Tokyo (And this goes for Bangkok as well). This is not to say the system is easier and smaller, it is huge and complicated.. but the train workers are beyond helpful and it runs flawlessly in a way that feels intuitive.

I assure you Ryan is only telling you that we were buying two tickets, not trying to emulate a stereotypical Japanese tourist

The first asian man we happened to meet waiting for the train turned out to be a guy from LA that was headed to Bangkok as well. The three of us stuck together for the hour and a half ride to Narita. We humored ourselves with public transportation, the amount of "cute" everywhere, and the astounding habits of sleeping Japanese business men. I don't know how, but swarms of business men ride these trains, go into what looks like deep, REM quality sleep within moments of sitting down, wake up right before they need to get off, and strut off the train as if they weren't just sleeping on some strangers shoulder- mouth agape- moments earlier. Even more bizarre is that the strangers don't seem to mind the intimate interaction of practically being drooled on. This was not an isolated case either, this was happening all around us. Couple that with a comical amount of girls in schoolgirl uniforms with pigtails and hello kitty backpacks and you have a fairly thorough picture of the train I was on. 

Superhero panda, with puffy lips and hangover eyes, wants to remind you that 
if you try to block the closing doors you might cry

After getting over the initial shock of how predictably "japan" everything was, I started to notice all of the little things that reminded me I was far from home. Ambient sounds were foreign to me. Every time the train would pull into a station and the doors would open I was alarmed by the bird sounds. There was nothing special about them, but they were just so different from the typical sparrow, starling, crow, and songbirds that I hear all over the US. 

We were finally in Narita city as all of the shops were starting to open. Making a stop into the train snack shop we had to asses the snack situation of Japan, because I believe it says a lot about a place. We were not disappointed.

I think this is shrink wrapped snack sushi. It looked like rice wrapped around velveeta, but who knows

By far my favorite find was what can only be described as bloated-harlequin-baby-teletubby peach candy. It was altogether adorable and disturbing. I couldn't resist. Better yet, each candy was individually wrapped with an equally terrifying yet different character. I was starting to understand why my biggest fans on Youtube are from Japan. We share a common appreciation for gross cuteness.

If you notice, I also got a peach tea. Peach flavored candies and drinks were everywhere. Literally everywhere. As common as vending machines. And I really mean it. You can find a vending machine in the middle of a deserted alley in Japan. When you are lost in the twisted streets of Narita and you find yourself between a clothesline and a hardplace, there it will be... a bright glaring drink machine begging you to buy "Pocari Sweat".

What is that you say? Could that be Tommy Lee Jones plastered in all his stern, pock faced glory on a Japanese vending machine? Yes. Yes it is. Like a BOSS.

You see, what Bill Murray was in Lost in Translation is what Tommy Lee Jones really is in Japan. His face is all around billboards and commercials advertising Suntory Coffee. 

Youtube is full of these. You're welcome.

If you feel compelled to watch 13 minutes of these lovely relics in a row... by all means.

And apparently he's not the only one to do this. Having rather famous American movie stars act in ridiculous japanese advertisements is a "thing". He is following in the footsteps of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Nicolas Cage and Sean Connery. The list is expansive. Enjoy.
I encourage you to devote some time to that webpage 

Japan had already won over my heart and I was still only a block from the train station.
All around us were small, impeccably clean, one way streets that fold in on each other. With not a trashcan in sight, these streets rivaled disneyland in cleanliness. With the street signs being entirely in Kanji, I had started to lose a bit of hope in finding the Sushi shop Ryan so desperately had his heart set on. All I had to work from was a picture in my head and the name of the place... which was not helping us since nothing was in a recognizable alphabet.We are lost. I love it.

I have a weakness for rice crackers. I will tear through a bag like it's candy. Also, while I hate most fish, I love to eat Eel. Don't ask how I make sense of this, there is no logic to it other than the fact that Eel is abundantly fatty and covered in delicious sauces. To my great delight and joy, Narita's streets are freckled with both Rice Cracker shops and Eel shops. I don't just mean stores sell both of these things... I mean there are full shops devoted entirely to rice crackers and eel, respectively. 

Rice Cracker heaven, made in the shop

A girl who has seen heaven

It really doesn't get any fresher than having your eel meal gutted and deboned right in front of you. In fact, they display it for everyone walking by on the street. Grab, nail, slice, debone, grill, repeat.

Flan ice-cream. Enough said.

You couldn't find two dorkier people happier to be in Japan

This is meat or fish of some kind
Most of the tourists we saw were Japanese coming from other parts of Japan to see the huge temple in the middle of town

At the end of the long curvy street of Eel and Crackers is a giant park with an enormous buddhist temple... I would tell you more about it, but I really know nothing. All of the signs explaining the significance were in Japanese. 

We descend up the steps, passing by ponds full of lazy turtles sunning themselves on  coin covered rocks, hazy pagodas filled with incense, and thick stones carved with kanji and cradled in moss. We walk through woods and stumble upon splintery wooden buildings painted in intricate reds, blues and golds, each one more beautiful than the previous. At last we come upon the Pagoda of Peace, the highest point in Narita, a pagoda atop a hill upon a hill.

Inside of the Pagoda, we have to take off our shoes before we can go to the main room. My feet welcome the cooshy orange and green carpet that lines the narrow stairwell up to the main room. We walk up the stairs until we get to a gigantic room covered from floor to ceiling in astonishing gold detail. To say it was intricate doesn’t do it justice. I couldn’t take any pictures in there, but trust me when I say it was awe-inspiring. The ceiling and lights were as detailed as lace in hand painted red, blue, and gold designs that met at the middle of the room where a giant, blue, lion headed man surrounded by flames sat facing the balcony that overlooked the park. One girl was sitting in front of the lion man, crying uncontrollably. 

 No Scotties, clearly.

On our way back to the front of the park, we took advantage of the plentiful vending machines.

Walking back to the gates, we started to hear this loud vibrational chanting. It was echoing all around, so naturally we ran to find the source of it. We were led to the main temple in the front of the park. Walking up to the door of the temple the vibrations became so strong that it was hard to categorize them as just a sound. It was a feeling, shaking my whole body.Inside of the temple, monks were chanting in front of a room full of people praying on their knees. Peeping into the temple was a small crowd of the only other white tourists I had seen so far, craning their necks for a glimpse of the action inside. Feeling that same cautiousness of being an outsider inside myself, I decided to do something I don't normally do. Who knows when this opportunity would come again. I took off my shoes and went inside. 

I am not religious at all, but being in that room could make me understand what people get from it. A room full of devoted people being filled with the rythmic hums of the monks, incense smoke twirling around the room as the gongs echo off of the walls. Flutes were playing, but not in the room, they were muffled, coming from behind the walls, giving the sense of some sort of ancestors or past or something otherworldly joining in on the ritual. My whole head vibrated with the humming. It was hauntingly beautiful. I found out later that we had stumbled upon the sacred fire rite that they do in the afternoon. I felt lucky beyond belief to witness it.

Sandwhiched between an apartment complex and a rice cracker shop was a tiny cemetery filled to the sidewalk with gravestones and shrines. Efficiently packed into the tiny lot were stone buddhas wearing red knit beanies and cups of tea, cans of soda, and glasses of alcohol. At first I thought someone had left behind their teacup while they were visiting a relative, caught up in a hurry to the point where they forgot to finish their tea... but then I noticed that almost every gravestone had a drink sitting on it, like an offering to their long gone relatives and friends. The most heartbreaking was a small children's cup with a jolly elephant on the side. Leaves rested on top of the tea that filled the cup. Long, flat, wooden sticks would stick out from behind many of the gravestones, haphazardly angled in all directions like too many french fries crammed into too small a box.

The day couldn't get anymore perfect, because across the street from the graveyard was the sushi shop we were looking for. Kismet. I don't eat raw fish, so I sat there eating Eel and staring in shock at the giant pieces of fish lying gluttonously over tiny morsels of rice.  

I am personally an American sushi gal (dragon rolls and all that fancy rolled up junk), but Ryan was in his own form of Nirvana. To top it off, our sushi chef was really funny and sweet. As we were about ready to leave, he looked at Ryan and said the magic phrase... "I make you something special".  Ryan looked at me with that same little boy face; I swear he squeeled. Behind the counter the chef carefully selected a piece of Toro, seared it lightly with a blowtorch, sprinkled a bit of salt on it, and squeezed a fresh lemon on top. As he handed it to Ryan he said "no soy sauce". Ryan gladly listened, nodded his head furiously and Arigato'd the man to death. Ryan is naturally someone who shows great appreciation for good food with a satisfying sequence of faces and sounds that could be described as great pleasure... but I have never seen him so satisfied with a piece of fish.

 The man who made Ryan's dream come true

Now naturally, since I hadn't eaten much, we had to go on another food journey through town. No red bean dessert or eel dish left behind. We turned down streets with little care as to how to get back to where we were. We didn't care. Every street had new surprises, whether it was a residential hill of old grandma's hanging laundry or streets lined with paper lanterns and karaoke bars. 

 Kabob? Steak? I can only guess what flavor of Cheetos this was

I can't believe how much we fit into the day. By the time we got back to the airport we were thoroughly exhausted and slept like babies for the 7 hour flight all the way to Bangkok. I would say That's not bad for a 12 hour layover. 

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